There should be no debate on this: Toni Smith, a college basketball player, has the right to turn her back on the flag.
She has the right to protest during the national anthem. She has the right to disagree with President George W. Bush’s plans for war in Iraq. She has a right to say that “many innocent people . . . will die overseas” and that
“going to war will likely provoke more violence in this country.”
She may even be correct.
But having the right to do something and being right about doing it are two different things. And what Smith has done this basketball season, night after night, before her Manhattanville College games — turning her back so that everyone can witness her dissent — is wrong.
It’s wrong not in principle, but in place. It’s wrong not in sensibility, but in sensitivity. It’s wrong because a college basketball game is not a political arena, nor a stage for protest. But by doing what she does, she makes it so.
And that, she doesn’t have the right to do.
Stealing the scene
If Smith doesn’t wish to stand for the flag, she can sit — away from the court. She can wait until after the anthem to come out of the locker room. She can take any number of personal paths.
But to turn her rear end to the Stars and Stripes — in front of her teammates, her opponents and the fans who watch her games — is taking a stage and commandeering it for her own. It hogs the moment, a moment she only has because she is on a school team. And being on that team is not one of her American rights. It’s a privilege that comes with guidelines. She can’t be on the team if she smokes during a game or refuses to wear the team uniform. She seems to accept those limits.
“The flag is a symbol of what we stand for,” said Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma, who last week claimed he would throw Smith off his squad if she played for him. “To me” what Smith did “is disrespectful. And as a coach, I would have the right to not to have that person on my team.”
The fact that Smith’s own coach, a first-year man at Manhattanville, an NCAA Division III school in Purchase, N.Y., does not throw her off, doesn’t make her actions more appropriate. You don’t spit out food at a dinner party just because you don’t like it. And when you are only on a floor because of your basketball skills, it is not asking too much to keep your politics in the tunnel.
Criticizing her country
Now, you might wonder why we play the national anthem at sporting events in the first place. It’s a good question. Maybe we shouldn’t.
But for now we do.
“What does the flag mean to me?” Smith said last week. “It means the millions and millions of indigenous people who were massacred to claim it. It means the millions of those enslaved to build it up. It means the millions of those who are still oppressed in order for it to prosper.”
That’s funny. I didn’t know our prosperity relied on oppression. I thought that was Iraq. I thought we relied on freedom. One might ask Smith what country’s flag she would feel comfortable with, since you’d be hard-pressed to find a significant nation with no history of war, bloodshed or unfair treatment.
That doesn’t mean the country deserves your backside.
The freedom Smith enjoys is a result of the battles fought for that flag, and the fact that in the audience of any game, there may be former soldiers, or widows of soldiers, should be enough to convince her to stand quietly. No one is trying to convert her. No one is demanding a vow of loyalty. No one should
— as one misguided veteran actually did recently — shove a flag in her face.
It’s just called decency. A time and a place. And the fact that under those Stars and Stripes, I can say all this and still not have the right to make her do it, should be reason enough for Toni Smith to regard the flag with a minute’s worth of respect.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).